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Pop-Up Block: Zoning Commission Votes to Reduce Height of Residential Additions

by Lark Turner

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A pop-up on Buchanan Street NW.

The Zoning Commission voted on Monday night to reduce the allowable height in DC’s R-4 districts from 40 feet to 35 feet in a move to counter residential pop-up additions, which many residents say are eroding the character of their low-density neighborhoods. Critics say that the move is essentially a “downzoning” of the R-4 district and a bad idea in a city that is increasingly jockeying for living space.

As predicted, the Commission voted 3-2 to lower the height, with Chairman Anthony Hood, Michael Turnbull and Peter May in favor of the new rule, and Vice Chair Marcie Cohen and Robert Miller against it.

As he has in previous hearings, Miller argued that a design review would go further toward curbing pop-ups than a height reduction. “We don’t need to change the whole zoning framework,” he said.

On a similarly split vote also aimed at limiting height, the Commission decided to make mezzanines in a house count as a floor. Cohen and Miller again opposed the vote, but May — who ended up casting the deciding vote throughout the night — said it was responsive to R-4 residents’ concerns.

“I think we heard a strong message about limiting the height in rowhouse neighborhoods, and I think mezzanines are a driver of that,” he said.

The Commission, however, did decide to allow developers to convert a rowhouse into up to four units as a matter-of-right, provided one of the units is offered at 80 percent area median income and the additions comply with a long set of rules. Those are:

  • A mezzanine will count toward the maximum number of floors.
  • There will be 900 square feet of land area per dwelling unit and no more than 4 units are permitted.
  • The fourth unit will be subject to inclusionary zoning at 80 percent AMI.
  • A conversion can’t result in the demolition of more than 30 percent of the gross floor area of the original structure.
  • A rear addition can’t extend further than ten feet past the rear wall of any adjacent residential row structure.
  • An upper floor addition can’t result in the removal or significant alteration of a rooftop architectural element original to the house, such as a turret or tower.
  • Any upper floor addition can’t block or impede the functioning of a chimney or other external vent required by any municipal code on an adjacent property.
  • An upper or rear addition can’t interfere with the operation of any immediately adjacent neighboring solar energy system.

The decision was essentially a compromise in the new regulations and passed on a split vote, with May, Cohen and Miller in favor.

“I’d rather have the controls than force everybody through a special exception process,” May said.

The Commission was voting on proposed rules, so the change is not yet final. It will take a second, final vote on the regulations later this spring, which will likely reaffirm the previous decision.

See other articles related to: zoning commission, pop-ups

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/in_pop-up_hearing_zoning_commission_votes_to_reduce_height_in_r-4_zones/9704

2 Comments

  1. Lee said at 12:26 pm on Tuesday March 31, 2015:

    The title of the article is very misleading.  35’ does nothing to stop vertical additions.  The vertical addition in the picture does not exceed 35’.  You are still allowed 3 stories in R-4, and it would be unusual for a story (including framing) to be greater then 10’ each.

  1. skidrowedc@gmail.com said at 2:01 pm on Tuesday March 31, 2015:

    Piggybacking on Lee’s comment: 35’ will prove, in many cases, to be worse than 40’.  To fit the extra floor into 35’, it will often be necessary to destroy existing cornices, mansards, and the like—sometimes that happens now, but more often the new is built over the old (awkwardly, sometimes, but at least the old is maintained).  The dissenters were right—pop-ups are a design problem.  Lowering the height actually makes it less likely that sensitive, good design will result.  I don’t understand why the commission hasn’t considered required setbacks.  That would resolve almost the entire design problem, while still allowing building owners to expand.

    The 4-unit requirements illustrate how detached from reality the commission has become.  Since the 900-sf/unit rule already exists, and virtually no DC rowhouses have 3600-square foot lots, this is an incredibly elaborate solution to an almost nonexistent problem.  Even for the 1% of rowhouses that actually have lots that large, it basically just acts as a poison pill for having a 4th unit.  Impossible to see how that’s going to put a lid on, or otherwise affect, the pop-up problem.  And the requirements are a laundry list of anti-popup activists’ paranoias—all the mud they could throw actually stuck, but to a pointless piece of regulation.  Sad all around.

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